Readers familiar with horror surely recognize the ghost story as a pillar of the genre. Dating back to Biblical times (ever heard of the Holy Ghost?), the idea of ghosts continues to capture our curiosity. Whether they exist or not remains up for debate, adding to their mystery and stimulating our imaginations. Horror writers tap into this to craft different versions of ghosts, be it literal specters or metaphorical apparitions.
This month’s theme for JUVEN has been history. Aside from being a long-standing horror tradition, ghosts represent history in a more metaphorical sense, too. They’re manifestations of a tragic past and trauma. A ghost in literature often embodies either trauma of a character or a collective trauma within a certain location.
Starting with personal trauma, the ghost of a story traditionally died in a tragic way with “unfinished business”. They might have died from an illness before a loved one returned from war, or drowned in a pond due to a negligent caretaker, or just been plain old-fashioned murdered. With all of these, there’s some traumatic event that takes a toll on the character’s psyche well-being. The ghost carries that lingering trauma over into their death, unable to move on thanks in part to the abuser or event. In shows like The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, the ghosts tend to fall into this category.
In other stories, the ghost is tied to a tragic event that happened in an area, resulting in a collective trauma. Pornsak Pichetshote’s graphic novel Infidel features ghosts of this nature. The graphic novel focuses on an American Muslim woman and her friends living in an apartment complex haunted by ghosts. The ghosts died in an explosion at the apartment, and embody islamophobic hatred. The entire building went through a collective trauma following the explosion, but the ghosts manifest the worst feelings resulting from the incident and antagonize the current tenants
Often, the characters will try to unravel the past of the ghost in search of a way to release them. Thus, they inadvertently work through the ghost’s trauma for them. It’s a narrative about healing and overcoming pain. Sometimes that’s achieved through forgiveness, other times revenge. Either way, the protagonist helps reconcile the ghost with the past that hurt them and made them what they are.
If we look at this through a lens of the author “writing what they know”, then the ghost story becomes even heavier. Drawing on one’s own experience for a ghost story can put one in a vulnerable spot. But when writing about the trauma and watching the characters work through it, the author can work through their past themselves. They can reframe and reshape the events and the people, bending it to their will. Framing trauma as a ghost story can help in the processing and reclamation journey by othering the experience.
Which does beg the question: if an author is putting their trauma on display for all to read, what place do we have to judge the work? Obviously we should respect one's journey and the work they put into confronting their trauma. How do we reconcile that with the story they wrote? Do we try to distance the two and judge them separately? Is that even possible?
Something to consider the next time you read or write a ghost story is what the story says about trauma. How does it affect the characters? How is it addressed? Is it overcome, and if so, how?
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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